This next-generation Ultrabook is based on the award-winning Zenbook and features a metallic 'spun' metal design that's a Zenbook hallmark, this time with a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 with Native Damage Resistance (NDR), which adds a sheer high-gloss finish that's as hard-wearing as it is stunning.
Corning Gorilla Glass 3 has the same durability and thinness as Gorilla Glass 2, and its proprietary NDR glass composition gives superior scratch resistance, reduced scratch visibility and improved toughness. Corning Gorilla Glass 3 has three times the scratch resistance of Gorilla Glass 2 and offers a 40 per cent reduction in the number of highly visible scratches, and a 40 per cent improvement in retained strength if a deep scratch does occur.
• Processor : Intel Core i5-4200U / i7-4500U
• Operating system : Windows 8 / Windows 8 Pro
• Display : 13.3-inch LED backlit with 10-point capacitive multi-touch, 1920 x 1080 Full HD IPS
• Graphics : Intel HD Graphics 4400 / NVIDIA GeForce GT 730M (2GB VRAM)
• Memory : 2/4GB DDR3L (1600MHz)
• Touchpad : Multi-touch touchpads with full support for Windows 8 gestures
• Storage : Up to 750GB hard drive with 16GB SSD cache
• Connectivity : 802.11ac (dual-band), Bluetooth 4.0, Mini DisplayPort, 3 x USB 3.0, HDMI 1.4, 3.5mm headphone/mic socket, SD card reader
• Audio : Stereo speakers with ASUS SonicMaster audio technology, Internal array mic
• Battery : Lithium polymer (50W)
• Size : 325 x 226 x 17.2mm
• Weight : 1.5kg
When I was offered the opportunity to give this new beastie a test-run, I wasn't too sure. I have trialled some ASUS gear in the past, and my own laptop is an ASUS too... but I have never really found the brand to offer top-flight gear - it's always been a 'budget brand' to me despite it's long and illustrious career in the IT industry. From humble beginnings to being one of the market leaders, ASUS has a lot of hype to live up to. Thus... I was skeptical of the claims and wondering if this was going to be my first official review of their gear, and my last as well. Time will tell because while I was very impressed by most aspects of this notebook, there were some key features that just didn't really shine the way I would have hoped.
The first thing I had to try to come to terms with was the fact that, unlike 99% of the laptops out there, this baby it's wrapped in plastic and aluminium. It's got a glass lid. For a reviewer with a high-priced loaner in his hands, that's a terrifying thought! Glass?! On a laptop?! But this isn't ordinary glass, it's the latest generation in Corning's Gorilla Glass range, and it's tough! We weren't going to put it to any scratch-tests, that's for sure, but I know how quickly my own laptop got skuffed just with everyday use - pulling it in and out of the laptop bag allowed the metal zipper to give it an unhealthy patina of abrasions. After 2 weeks of doing the same with this - and a lot of tense nail biting - I was impressed to see not a single obvious scratch... nary the one. A tough glass lid does look stylish - and that's clearly a driving factor - but by using the toughest of the tough, ASUS created style that is also durable, and that's impressive.
Connectivity is key, and the slimness of this unit - a svelte 17.2mm - does make some of the plugs too bulky to fit. While some of them have slimline variants specifically for smaller devices like this and smartphones, others like Ethernet, just won't fit. To combat this, you are presented with a delightful, if worryingly easy to misplace, adapter that gives you the connection at the expense of mini DisplayPort. A trade-off likely to annoy rather than impress, but this is no TARDIS - you can't fit a big plug into a slimline device any more than you can fit a hardcopy phonebook inside a matchbox. However, you do have three USB 3.0 ports available to you - one that is turbofied to give you a juicy 2A output, which is comparable to what you get from a wall-socket charger - so you can speed-charge high-drain devices such as tablets or high-end smartphones. I found it topped up my cellphone in a very respectable time - longer than my wall-charger, but much faster than off my regular PC.
One of the best features that drew me in is one that is becoming more common in high-end devices - backlit keyboard. With a growing trend for eye-straining nocturnal use of portable computing devices, anything to help improve matters for those of us who suffer from severe typoitis when they can't see where their fingers are going, this is a great boon. The glow is even detectable in daylight, though only really when you are in shade. Personally, I wouldn't be using any keyboard in the levels of darkness that would warrant this feature, I love the "style" factor it lends to this device... in ASUS' typical blue, of course. It even outlines the trackpad - which is something that I found to be another "weak spot" feature on this device. While there is a well-documented history of mediocre-at-best trackpads on ASUS laptops, this one does seem to have improved significantly, yet even with software assistance and the ability to register multi-point contacts, it still gave me no joy to use and I was happiest using the touchscreen and a regular mouse if I had to. I know people rag on about stylus-driven touchscreens, but seriously, how DO you do a 'right mouse click' without a mouse? It's not as though the device can tell the difference between your index finger and the middle one as a way of registering 'click vs menu'... and I am not a fan of 'the long-press' as a context-cue. (No, I can't explain why... wish I could, but it's just me. If you're good with it, then this will provide you no worries.)
The screen is a mixed bag, but still viable today. While a 13" screen is nothing impressive by today's standards, the 10-point touch aspect of it makes using Win8/Win8.1 Gestures easy and efficient. While the contrast is well in the middle range, the colour clarity and intensity makes this good for replacing your mobile DVD player for the kids during those long drives, while still keeping this useful as an on-the-go computing device. However, if you expect to take this with you on those Summer outings, so you can catch up on emails while the kids frollick in the park, BE WARNED! The screen is glossy... and I mean 'MacGyver could use this as an emergency heliograph mirror' glossy, which means reflections and glare are going to plague you even on overcast days. Even indoors, I found I had to adjust the screen continually to avoid reflections creeping in as the sun drifted across the skyline. A matte finish would have been simple, affordable, and a lot more effective an option for this device. Heck, ALL devices, really. You also need to be aware that you should dive deep, deep, deep into all of your display settings to find where you can turn OFF the adaptive brightness system. Not only does it play hob with your visibility when you are already frustrated by glare on the screen, but it can overcompensate and chew through your battery in record time.
We found that with it on, and in moderate usage, we got a little under 5 hours out of a full battery charge. That's taking it to the point that it simply refused to do anything and shut itself down in pique. Repeat this test four more times, and the same duration - confirmed to within +/- 5 minutes. Turning the adaptive brightness off and setting it to a good level for use in a shaded area - around 35-45% - and we found almost 2 hours of extra power! That's really quite significant - almost 40% of the maximum power was being drained by the system jumping the lighting up and down to adjust for ambient illumination. To offset this though, the use of an IPS screen ensures that you do get a good range of viewing angles, which some may see as losing some of the inhgerent 'privacy' of the old-style screens, while others would just enjoy the ability for more than one person to watch a movie at the same time. Add to that the "Bang & Olufsen ICEpower" speakers - skillfully hidden in the chassis unless you look very carefully - and you'll get a passable "movies on the go" experience from this laptop. You will notice that the speakers are still a bit tinny, especially in the higher volumes, but with a bit of tweaking you can get something fairly passable. It's nothing awe-inspiring, but it still sits above the 'tolerable' line by a comfortable margin.
RAM - it's the second biggest headache for notebook users. Often it's tough to get a system that allows you to upgrade the RAM more than doubling the supplied amount. For example, this unit comes with 2GB onboard, so it is reasonable to expect that you can boost it to 4GB. You're wrong... this little baby allows you to PENTUPLE the RAM if you want - meaning the 2GB onboard can be enhanced up to a total of 10GB. The only pitfall is that this must be done with a single DIMM, because there's only one upgrade slot available. By far the biggest headache then is storage. While the higher-end model in this series - the UX301 - is packed with super-fast, super-quiet, super-cool 256GB SSDs, this unit has an old-style 2.5" HDD in it. However, that means that you get a stonking 500GB+ (up to 750GB in some variants) of storage with a 16GB SSD cache, and the HDD can be upgraded to larger formats as and when you can get your hands on them. If you value speed over space, then you can always swap it out for an SSD as you see fit, but for most people who would use this unit, storage space is going to be more valuable IMHO.
Booting up is pretty nice - 13 seconds from dead-cold, down to 3 seconds from sleep. This is due, in large part, to the 16GB SSD caching. Of course, it's helped by the Intel i7 processor, that's capable of jamming up to 3GHz if you give it a bit of overclocking attention, though this is not advised for novices and the nervous. Yes, there IS a nice little video card in this, thank you for noticing. However this is far from a gaming rig, so even when performance is being bolstered by the Halswell chipset, you should keep in mind that even running a recent version of Adobe Photoshop will cause it to blank-out on you at awkward moments... usually right when you need it to behave itself because you're doing something delicate and colour-balancey.
Something that has always irked me about laptops is the designers seem to think your lap should be an active part of the cooling system. I find that uncomfortable in the extreme, so I was really pleased to see that in this unit the designers reversed the heatflow, going WITH the laws of thermodynamics, and pulling the air in through vents in the base, circulating it around the components and puffing it up and out through vents near the hinge. Even under some CPU-straining workloads, the heat didn't create any discomfort on my lap, which will be welcomed in Summer, and yet missed in Winter. On that front, I can also say that the unit runs extremely quietly too, with the fans, at full revs, creating only the slightest of hums. Great for use in public libraries, lecture halls and classrooms - anywhere that loud whirring is unappreciated.
Overall, this is a pretty good upper-middle range laptop. I think it's a little overpriced for what you are getting, and while it rates very well in aesthetic appeal, there are some real functional issues that need to be addressed before I would class it as deserving of it's "high-end" claim. Wait, and watch for it on special in 3-6 months time and you could get yourself a good deal... and use the money you save to buy yourself a decent webcam to go with it, because the built-in one is frankly sub-standard. A good smartphone has a better camera built in, so there's no excuse for the one ASUS chose.
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